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Thoughts From a Former Craigslist Sex Worker
People -- not just prostitutes -- have sex for many reasons. Sometimes, for some of us, one reason is money.
From October 2006 to January 2007 I accepted money in exchange for sexual services I provided to men I met online in what was then called the "erotic services" section of Craigslist.org. No more a "professional" than a person renting a room on the same site is necessarily a professional real estate broker, for me and other women and men like myself, Craigslist at that time provided a simple, familiar forum through which I could do my business with complete anonymity, from the safety and convenience of my own home. At Craigslist.org, I was able to bill myself as exactly what I was at the time: a graduate student, bored and curious, sexually uninhibited, looking to make a little money while having a little fun. I wrote my own ads, screened my own prospective dates, decided on my own what I would and would not do for money, and -- best of all -- I kept every penny I earned, all without the interference of an agency or other ubiquitous "middle man."
Ultimately, while my experience as a "non-pro" was not the "fun" I had come looking for -- I found the lifestyle physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting, and so I made a decision to desist some months after I'd gotten started, exiting the industry just as freely as I'd entered -- never have I felt it was the state's obligation -- nor its right, in fact -- to protect me from the decisions I made.
On Thursday, September 4th, cowing to ongoing criticism from attorney generals and advocacy groups, Craigslist shut down what had come to be called its "adult services" section, replacing the link with a black and white bar that reads "censored." This, after years of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark fighting such pressure, is a disappointing display of him abandoning the very principles of freedom on which his site was founded and feels more a violation than ever I experienced on even my worst "dates." Opponents to the "adult services" section claimed that its existence facilitated with greater ease the trafficking and exploitation of women and children, and while I do not doubt such exploitation exists, it is my supposition that most women who are found out by the authorities to sell sex would rather be labeled a "victim" (and so entitled to protection) than to be considered a criminal (to be prosecuted and exposed).
For all the "victims" of the "adult services" section of Craigslist.org, I would venture there are a considerable number of individuals like myself -- free thinking, entrepreneurial human beings with choices and responsibilities -- whose real-life experiences, not to mention sources of income -- are being stifled by our so-called advocates.
It has been some years since the last time I met a stranger through Craigslist for reasons other than to buy or sell a piece of furniture. I hope to never again make the choice to trade sex for cash even as I risk my current job and social standing to speak out for an individual's right to do so. The simple fact is that people do have sex for money -- many different kinds of people for many different reasons, people as varied as those looking to buy concert tickets, sell a collectible or adopt a pet -- and these people will continue to. Whether the choice to do so is being dignified and protected with its own forum or whether what was once that safe space remains appropriately labeled "censored," that choice, without a court order one way or another, remains up to Newmark.
Bronx grade-school teacher admits she’s ex-hooker — and flaunts it
Melissa Petro went public in a big way this month, writing a Huffington Post post expressing disappointment that Craigslist had given in to pressure and taken down its adult services section:
“For all the ‘victims’ of the ‘adult services’ section of Craigslist.org, I would venture there are a considerable number of individuals like myself – free thinking, entrepreneurial human beings with choices and responsibilities – whose real-life experiences, not to mention sources of income – are being stifled by our so-called advocates.”
According to the Post, the school district has known for a while about the background of its 30-year-old teacher. Petro refused a sympathetic administrator’s informal request that she publish under a pseudonym. In other words, she was pretty much asking to get fired from her $61,000 a year job at P.S. 70, which probably doesn’t match her income from her former careers. Thus far, she’s been put on administrative leave pending investigation.
Even before her blog post, Petro hardly hid her background – New York magazine notes that she’s tried to get attention in several ways, including this 2009 video in which she reads an essay about her experiences as a 19-year-old stripper in Mexico.
The best quote in the Post story comes from a parent.
“I don’t want nobody that used to do that to be around my kid,” said Grace Ventura, whose son is in third grade.
Hooker-Turned-Teacher Is Dubbed "Whore With Chutzpah"
Yesterday, the Bronx public school teacher who resigned from teaching after her writings about working as a Craigslist sex worker got her on the front page of every local rag hitched her wagon to notorious celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. But we couldn't figure out why Melissa Petro did, especially since she had already agreed not to sue the Board of Education or the city. But it turns out she has more civic concerns in mind: she told reporters yesterday that she was developing a creative writing program for teens at risk for sexual exploitation. But our favorite Post columnist wasn't so charmed by her announcement: "This is one whore with chutzpah," wrote Walmart-loving, geese-hating Andrea Peyser.
After months of silence, trapped in one of the city's rubber rooms, Petro defended herself and her writings to reporters at the news conference: "My writing existed long before I was teaching. I write for adults, I write on sites that speak to adults, I don't think my students could comprehend my work - and if they did, they deserve an A," she said. Although, err, Peyser disagrees with her assessment of her former students: "[she] thinks her Bronx art students are too dumb to understand Petro's written ravings about her career as a proud and empowered slut." Peyser goes to town on Petro, mocking her "brown sky-high platform do-me pumps," calling her "clueless," and pointing out her "high-pitched, little-girl lisp" while cackling "ha ha."
And she is especially incredulous that Petro could be teaching children again: "Petro announced—get this—that she's reinventing herself as a crusader for "social justice" and plans to work with teens at risk for sexual exploitation. Holy cow! This woman is allowed to get her hands on more kids?" Ahh Peyser: whether you're giving Rudy Giuliani parenting advice or fetishizing long legs, never stop your crazy.
IHTM: I Did a Sexy Pictorial for Penthouse
Had you asked me a year ago if I would have considered writing for Penthouse, let alone taking pictures, I would have feigned insult.
Had you asked me a year ago if I would have considered writing for Penthouse, let alone taking pictures, I would have feigned insult. Like the offer that came from High Society -- 60K to pose fully nude -- I wouldn’t have considered it.
At that time, I was still trying to save my career, let alone my reputation. The truth is, a year ago, I had considered High Society’s offer. Having never heard of it, I looked the publication up online, disappointed to discover it was not nearly as classy as it sounded. If only it had been Playboy, I remember thinking at the time. Hell, even if it had it had been Penthouse -- even then, with so much at stake -- I might have been tempted.
I’m not a Penthouse Pet. I’m not a celebrity. I’m a freelance writer, best known (if at all) as the “Hooker Teacher.”
September of last year, I lost my job as a public school teacher after authoring a scandalous article for The Huffington Post. Prior to becoming a teacher, the article admitted, I had worked as a call girl. Of this past, I wrote, I had no regrets -- and I should not be made to feel ashamed. My former employer didn’t share my politics, however, especially after they me on the cover of The New York Post.
Since resigning from public school teaching, I’ve spent the last six months working to establish myself as a writer, and while I’ve pitched articles on every subject, there is just one subject editors seem interested in hearing from me: sex -- sex work in particular.
Having penned so many pieces on the subject of stigma and discrimination through the lens of lived experience -- fighting the idea that once a hooker, always a whore -- it’s ironic that, as a writer, I find myself in a similar conundrum -- what some have called the women writer’s “pink ghetto.”
When a woman writes about sex, xoJane's own Emily argued in a piece she wrote for Bust Magazine, it’s received differently than from when a man does. Because women are defined largely by our sexuality, women who write about sex confirm certain expectations that people already have of women writers. We risk never being taken seriously. It becomes that much more difficult to be known or thought of as anything else.
Once an over-sharer, I sometimes fear I will be confined to work that is forever confessional. I fear I’ll be judged by how I look versus the quality of my work. Faux-hoe Jessica Pilot commented on the same phenomenon in an earlier IHTM after going undercover on a story about prostitution. While her solution for escaping “the pink ghetto” was to start writing about anything BUT sex (she gave bagels as an example) this solution’s just not right for me.
For one, I’m a memoirist -- not a journalist. While I hope my work comments on something larger than my own experience, I begin with me. Having actually worked in the sex industry, on and off, for nearly a decade -- not having just observed it for a matter of months, as Jessica did -- sex work is a big part of my story, especially since my talking about it cost me my career.
Four months after my last day as a teacher, I had sold the Hooker Teacher story yet again, this time to Penthouse. Months after they’d paid me for the article but before it went to print, they asked me for pics.
The photographer, Alex, was not the furry chested grease-ball sleazoid I expected of a Penthouse photographer. Neither was his assistant, Christine, his wife. The three of us, along with an artist hired to do my hair and makeup, met on location: Pandora’s Box, which has the reputation of being the nicest dungeon in NYC.
Zena led us down a hall past the “oriental room” and a space filled with what looked to be torture devices into the old schoolroom, where the photo shoot was to take place. The concept we’d agreed on over email was the obvious.
Sure, I would be a “sexy teacher,” but sexy is subjective. Alex asked how far I wanted to go.
“Well, I bleached my asshole so I’m ready for anything,” I said.
It was a joke. I hadn’t bleached my asshole.
From the room’s nervous reaction I kind of got the impression no one wanted to see my asshole anyway. Look here, I wanted to say, High Society offered me 60K for sexy pics! Now -- nearly a year later -- I was doing it for free. Why?
Too late to back out, I let myself wonder: Why, exactly, had I agreed to do this? What was in it for me? I wasn’t getting paid. It wasn’t necessarily good for my career. What, exactly, was I expecting?
I guess I had expected to play the old game of “man pursues, girls refuse,” the familiar game where I’m talked into more than I had mentally prepared to do as a way of allowing myself to do what I’d wanted to do anyway. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I allowed myself to be talked into stripping at the age of 19. It is a game that, as an adult, I am determined to stop playing.
Behaving impulsively and giving in to the “heat of the moment” gives me a charge -- it’s sexy and fun -- and yet this bad habit of letting circumstances rather than sound judgement make choices for me has taught me some hard lessons. Since losing my job, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what’s motivated my past choices, besides the political.
Whereas a part of me believes in the power of pairing images and text -- that my image alongside my work underscores certain political points, namely statements about my not being ashamed -- another equally valid part of me really gets off on showing some skin. Yes, the “hooker teacher” is a bit of an exhibitionist -- shocking, I know.
Still, it’s hard for me to admit, even to myself. This is a part of my motivation I am less honest about, a part I am sometimes tempted to cover up with the political justifications rather than having to explore. With so much shame wrapped up around my sexuality, being okay with whatever I desire and allowing myself to experience it without judgement is something that I practice. The problem comes when what feels good in the short run has the potential to bring pain -- and not just for myself.
Career aside, writing about sex-- not to mention the life that inspires it-- has affected my private life. If you think the unspoken fact that you’re a former sex worker alienates your family and friends, trying being called out on the cover of the NY Post.
After the hooker teacher headline, neighbors literally crossed the street. Becoming unemployable in my former field meant that my boyfriend shouldered the financial burden. In couples therapy, it was seriously suggested that I change my name and move to a new town.
I was ambivalent -- I had loved teaching, but I wanted to be a writer as well. I could no longer have it both ways. Knowing how it was jeopardizing my relationship, my decision to keep writing was not an easy one to make.
The worst is knowing that, to this day, my boyfriend tells the people he works with that his girlfriend is a school teacher. I can’t blame him. Still, when I first found out, it hurt.
Understandably, my boyfriend’s concerned to think that the mother of his future children might be known only as a whore. It’s not because he has a problem with my past -- because he doesn’t -- it’s because he knows I’m so much more than what that word implies.
Being in a relationship, I am learning, means accepting that the decisions I make are not all about me. Before the shoot, I had a conversation with him.
“I trust you,” he said. He also said, “I just don’t want to see you get exploited!”
He trusts me. Me, someone -- I sometimes fear -- with no ability to understand what is in her own interest. Someone still learning and relearning to trust in herself. That day at Pandora’s box, enacting the stereotypical “sexy teacher” fantasy, I couldn’t help but think of fantasy and reflect on my own pleasure -- the guilty pleasure I felt in enacting a cliche.
Sure, I can justify my having been a sex worker -- and then writing about it -- for a million political reasons, but a truth is that a part of me likes being exposed -- the more exposed the better. Dare I say, a part of me has always taken pleasure in being seen as an object -- not very feminist I know. But why not?
Having growing up in a culture that fetishizes sex appeal, I’m not immune to the insistent message that attractiveness is a young woman’s duty, and that beauty is equitable to worth. But having explored sexual desire to its tabooed extremes, I know from these experiences that attractiveness is a construct, femininity a performance.
I know that I’m no more attractive or sexually desirable than any other woman -- I simply know how (and choose) to play a certain role. When I perform a certain expression of womanhood, it elicits a certain response. When I made a career of it, I was good at my job. These days, I do it for fun, just as I used to do it for profit.
Alex’s vision, as he explained it that day, was for the “Hooker Teacher” to reclaim her power -- to take the butt of the joke and turn it around. No one looking at the pictures resulting from that shoot could possibly think that I am being myself, or that I am trying to be sexy or that I’m not aware -- and thus, in some control -- of how my image is perceived. Like a drag queen, I played the part a bit too much, and so the act reveals itself as just that -- an act.
I see Alex’s art and my participation in it as transgressive -- in my eyes, it’s commenting on gender, sex and sexuality -- it’s interesting, it’s art and I enjoy it intellectually, whether the rest of the world gets it or not.
When the shoot was over, amidst my signing of releases galore -- including a creepy moment when they made me take a picture holding up my ID -- I felt a momentary panic. I thought, what have I just done? Is this something I’ll regret?
It reminds me of another moment, some years ago between myself and an older lady in -- of all places -- the steam room at my gym. At the time, I had a big tattoo on my arm, which I have since covered with a much larger, objectively more beautiful tattoo -- a tattoo that I love, which I never would have gotten if I hadn’t gotten the first one.
"What is it?" she asked.
Not wanting to talk about it, I said, “a mistake.”
She seemed pleased. “A life full of mistakes,” she said, “is a life without regret.”
I’ve done a lot in my lifetime -- and I’ve never not done something that I’ve really wanted to, which has led to a lot of mistakes. Of all the trouble that I’ve gotten myself into, there’s nothing I haven’t been able to learn from.
Setting off the “Hooker Teacher” scandal was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. It was also the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to become the writer I was meant to be.
In the end, I learned what I knew in the beginning: sexy and serious need not be mutually exclusive, and while I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be careless, I do have to care less about what people think. How much we allow our sexuality to define us has more to do with our own self-perceptions than how we are perceived by others.
In the struggle to be taken seriously as a writer and not be defined entirely by my past, including what happened two Septembers ago, the solution needs to start with me. When I stopped having a problem with my “persona,” so did my boyfriend. Sure, his co-workers still think I’m a teacher, but that no longer hurts. I don’t need everyone to love and accept me for exactly who I am -- just the people I let closest.
When I got home from the photo shoot, my boyfriend thought it would be funny to take pictures of me in my underwear. I pretended to be irritated but the truth was, I was feeling pretty hot. I’m glad I let him get one or two good shots.
More importantly, a week or so after the shoot, I published an article built around an interview I had conducted with Alex’s wife, Christine. Yes, it’s sort of about sex, but it’s not about sex work and, best of all, nowhere in the piece am I identified as a former sex worker. For the first time, in the lede, I’m referred to simply as a writer.
“Unrepentant Whore” appears in the February issue of Penthouse.